When Autre Ne Veut’s debut album was released a few years back, it seemed to have the label “bedroom R&B” attached to it most prominently. R&B with an independent streak has become the most fertile of genres in the last couple of years, with the Weeknd making a big splash online in 2011 and the likes of Frank Ocean and Miguel responsible for two of last year’s most rightly acclaimed albums (along with How To Dress Well).
Now Autre Ne Veut, also known as Arthur Ashin since he ditched the cloak of anonymity, has returned with Anxiety, a second album that also acts as both a public therapy session and a triumphant musical statement. To call this bedroom R&B feels so reductive. This is searingly emotive music, turned all the way up to 11, and it is music the likes of which makes you wonder just why on earth huge budgets are blown on music with a lot less ambition.
It’s a wonder Ashin does anything to come near the album’s opening track at all. “Play By Play” is sensational, a song that begins with a descending synthetic harp strum. Then that falsetto voice comes in, singing “And I said, baby,” before layers are added to the track, including pipe bursts of backing vocals.
The production becomes thicker and thicker, building to what appears to be chorus but what transpires to be a mere bridge before, at the three-minute mark, the song’s monumental hook kicks in. From this point on, it’s a two-minute coda with a huge beat, incessant drum fills, and a full-on choir singing the pay-off: “I just called you up to get a play by play / Don’t ever leave me alone.” The album’s bleeding heart and enormous range are revealed in these opening five minutes.
Lead single “Counting” is about as restrained as the album gets, but it’s still a fabulous single. Introduced by an anguished choir, the track contains more production flourishes, little blasts of skronky horns and a sprinkle of atonal guitar, to back up the epic chorus of “I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay.” On promises, Ashin cuts up his voice until it does battle with itself in a widescreen two-minute interlude and asks the subject “You promised me heaven, didn’t you?” as the titular anxiety really starts to come to the fore.
It’s this uncomfortable lyrical directness, combined with Ashin straining for the high notes, that makes the album such a risky proposition. “Warning” is a case in point: it is barely two minutes long, but at its peak that voice is pushed into an ecstatic wail that could have sounded ridiculous, but instead it’s the sound of a fearless musician going full throttle, absolutely secure in his vision.
If the album’s first half is an exercise in increased anxiety about loss, its second half feels like the gradual acceptance of defeat. The wailing in “Gonna Die” sounds more desperate and immediate, while “Don’t Ever Look Back” begins the album’s emotional climax. If it all sounds a little heavy, Ashin also has an impressive ability to alleviate the pain and draw the listener in. “A Lie” is the album’s truest slow jam, and it is all the more effective for its relative control.
“Ego Free Sex Free” is an irresistible mid-tempo R&B track, with a chorus Justin Timberlake would be proud of and further judicious use of female vocal samples to give the song a deadened, haunted quality. Most surprisingly, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” actually manages to channel the spirit of Whitney Houston into a song that contains a chart-ready hook and danceable beat.
And then after barely half an hour of music, the album comes to its gorgeous climax with “World War.” The song begins as a pained ballad, becomes drenched in distorted static, and then when it all becomes too much, everything drops out for the track’s bittersweet climax. The album both begins and ends with impassioned mantras, and here we finish on “No way you’re gonna be my baby,” the sound of a final acceptance and maybe somebody making peace with that fact. Like much of the rest of the album, it is a knockout.
Anxiety is the sound of an artist fighting for his place in what has become something of a crowded field since he was last around. It is a case of “go big or go home” and a remarkable high-wire act of daring, free of irony or insincerity. Even with the multiple recent critical successes of spirited R&B artists, Autre Ne Veut may just have topped the lot. This is music of both immense breadth and depth, in which Ashin succeeds completely as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer, and hopefully he will find vindication for his open-hearted approach in the response to the album. It really is masterful, moving stuff.
Tickets for Autre Ne Veut’s upcoming date at the Troubadour are still available, and for more info: